GENEVA/ROME – Inadequate naval patrolling means ever more migrants from Africa and the Middle East will die trying to cross the Mediterranean, aid agencies warned on Tuesday, as Italy appealed for a “more vigorous” European response to tackle the crisis.
In the latest tragedy involving migrants, 29 people died of hypothermia on Monday on the exposed deck of a small Italian naval vessel after it rescued them in rough seas from a dinghy adrift near Libya.
The incident has reignited criticism of Italy’s decision last year to end a full-scale search-and-rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum, due to concerns over costs.
“Europe must do more and better. Italy did what it could (with Mare Nostrum) and gave its best resources and best effort,” Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters in Rome on Tuesday after a Cabinet meeting.
“Now Europe must take us forward. Together we must make a vigorous fight against the traffickers of death.”
Criminal networks are taking advantage of chaos in Libya to load migrants and asylum seekers onto risky vessels bound for Europe in severe winter conditions, humanitarian agencies said.
Speaking in Geneva, William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said bigger ships like those used in the Mare Nostrum operation could have safely rescued the migrants who died on Monday.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said 3,528 migrants had come by sea to Italy in January alone, up from 2,171 in the same month last year, with Syrians accounting for nearly a quarter.
The death toll in the Mediterranean since the start of the year stands at 50 against just 12 in the same period in 2014.
“We just think it’s a very ominous thing to have this early in the year this much activity,” IOM spokesman Joel Millman told reporters. The migratory season traditionally begins in spring.
“We’re seeing more and more Syrians trying to enter Europe through Greece and also flying into Sudan to try to reach Libya,” he said.
The dinghy implicated in Monday’s rescue set off on Saturday night from near Tripoli with 105 migrants, the IOM said, adding the dead had included young men from Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania.
The European Union runs a small rescue mission called Triton but has fewer ships than Mare Nostrum and a reduced area of operation. UNHCR called for a much more effective rescue system.
“Border policies must be designed in such a way that saving lives is the focus,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
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